Humans tend to act as organic sorting machines, especially when it comes to cultural items. We love to label, tag, classify and analyse all sorts of artistic trends… the form, the sounds, the poses, the content.. judge, formulate order & reorder new styles so it becomes (apparently) easier for us to understand what things like trallpunk, remodernism or rebolation are.
Our insatiable need to introduce a digital taxonomy for web content became a global obsession more than 10 years ago with the popularization of tagging tools. So it should come as no surprise that some of the hottest on-line services over the past decade have been those who’ve helped us precisely to classify & tag the digital world and its objects… Delicious, Technorati, Thisislike… In fact, it would be almost impossible for any existing content hosting website… Flickr, Youtube, Soundcloud… to get rid of these non-hierarchical keywords.
Fortunately for us, traditional tags have now evolved towards a much more sophisticated concept. Rather than a mere classification tool, tags are now enabling us to interact within the content itself. Something highly popularized by Facebook’s image tagging tool.
These new in-content tags will not only keep helping search engines but bring a whole new level of content discovery & engagement for visitors.
“Social Objects” guru Ulla Engeström is fully committed to make part of that digital content interactivity truly enjoyable, and rather than positioning her in-image tagging platform as another advertising enabler ThingLink aims to become the leading “rich media tagging service” for images (to start with).
We didn’t know those existed until we talked to her last week…
(ThingLink team, photo by Kai Widell)
aqnb: Hi Ulla, let’s start with an easy one…. what is ThingLink today, and what is a “social object”?
UE: ThingLink is a provider of image interaction tools, to give you a really short description. At the same time we allow any user or web publisher to add and show content on their images and connect with their favourite social-media services.
Regarding “social objects”, now that we’ve introduced these rich media-tags which we launched recently we are transforming images intro social objects. For me these are basically any object that enables social activity, communication or interaction. With the rich media tags we’re allowing different forms of activity on the image: you can attach conversations via Facebook, or videos, or music etc. so the interaction becomes very rich.
aqnb: Your project has evolved a lot in 5 years…. From your initial idea of a tool that would allow customers or fans socialise around physical objects… to a solution for on-line publishers. We could even consider ThingLink as an advertising tool! Why so many changes over the past lustrum…?
UE: Right. During these 5 years we’ve tried to solve 2 problems in order to make everyday objects clickable around us. That has been my inspiration for me all this time, everything has a story and how can we access that story in a nice way. 2 challenges:
– How to identify objects & how to present the story in an interesting way.
We thought we could solve the first issue by introducing this very simple tagging tool… let people draw a box and say what it is, let the identification part be as simple as possible and they can do it from their own website. Now we’ve finally come to solve the second problem… how to build a compelling story around the object. The provenance of an object, its story, is now delivered in the form of rich media tags.
(once upon a time… Ulla came up with an idea)
These tags which now you can use for images, you’ll be surprised but by the end of the summer you’ll be able to print them out as in physical tags and tag physical objects. So we’re still interested in tagging real objects…. we’re not very far from where we started.
aqnb: So what’s the appropriate usage for Thinglink? who is it aimed at?
UE: It’s true that I’ve been committed to build free technology for designers & craftsters from the beginning, that’s where the whole project started. I’m still inspired by the “creative sector” where there are still wonderful things being created on the long tail awaiting to be discovered. So I thing for them this is a great tool to share their work in a new way. It creates new forms of digital marketing.
So yep, aimed at “creative people” would be a good way to put it. Of course then, we talk about “publishers” because they’re the ones who use and post most images on-line. It’s true that it’s difficult to say we’re targeting just one group.
aqnb: What’s ThingLink’s business model? are you planning on splitting revenues like Pixazza or….?
UE: We have started with a few business-oriented services too: If you are a large brand and want to use ThingLink for increasing your sales, bringing more traffic to your site… this means hundreds of millions of pageviews loaded on our servers, so we have a business package for you, evaluating image performance, tech support… etc.
We offer a revenue-shared model (a platform willing to resell ThingLink services to their clients) and we’re already talking with a number of companies who’d like to do that. Or then if you’re a publisher and want to engage your readers better we can also offer a package.
aqnb: But as an independent publisher I could just grab ThingLink in it’s free version….
UE: Yes, we’re thinking about introducing a limitation of 2M pageviews, because it then starts putting more load on our servers, so you would have to migrate to our business package.
aqnb: Are customers willing to click & buy through photos? can you re-educate them? or will it come natural?
UE: Yeah! That’s one of the things we’ve been surprised by. Even those publishers who introduced ThingLink and didn’t tell their readers how it’s used, from day 1 they’re getting pretty impressive Clickthrough rates. Like from 10 to 20% which shows that people quite easily get used to it, people already know how tags work and are accustomed to hover & click. I think it comes very natural yes.
About advertising & competitors…
aqnb: Could tagged images be a substitute for ordinary banners?
UE: Well, I don’t see our tags as a marketing-only tool. I actually think they’re principally used for anything else. But yes, I do think that we’ll see a lot of development in banner ads in the future and it could replace them somehow because banners are really not performing too well and are used many times out of context. What we’re seeing now is that advertising is moving more towards local services, or much more context related, browsing history-related… so I see a lot of innovation in that space. There are other tagging firms which are clearly in the commercial space … Pixazaa, ISM… they are bringing new advertising formulas like banner ads on top of images themselves.
aqnb: Next is integration with ad networks for revenue sharing, similar to other in-image ad networks like GumGum, Stipple, Pixazza… can you elaborate on this?
UE: We are not actively looking to partnership with ad-networks. But we are talking with a number of other companies who could, as I explained, bring their services on images. We’re trying to integrate things that feel like a service for you and not like a disturbance.
aqnb: How does ThingLink differentiate from Pixazza, GumGum or ISM or Stipple? Will the jump into your field?
UE: I think they don’t offer rich media tags. They offer regular advertising. Our tags are built in a different way, we are primarily a tech company and an innovator, so we want to bring interesting content inside the images. I thing these other firms’ main focus is to bring the shopping cart on the image.
aqnb: ..and what about FB doing product advertising within our (their) photos? How do you feel about this?
UE: I… I personally think it’s cheap, and I see it happening. These companies see every image on the Internet as a potential platform for advertisement. We’re having this discussion constantly, humans are everyday disturbed with ad interruptions, how much can we take? We’re becoming more & more intolerant towards that.
Although I’m sure that if you make it fun it can work. I’m sure there will be lots of fun-tagging campaigns like Ikea did on Facebook. It was one of the pioneer campaigns allowing people to tag themselves on Ikea photos in order to get the product. We’ll see Coke, Pepsi.. etc doing these campaigns and trying to engage with fun, but the idea of seeing people’s photos automatically tagged with products/ads is not interesting for me.
aqnb: “Commercial tagging is most likely to work best within services”… does this mean that if we were to apply the commercial approach of your service to blog images, it would really end up irritating visitors just like ordinary banners?
aqnb: Pixazza, Stipple rely on human tagging for objects identification rather than using any sophisticated algorithms. We see Google trying to automatize this process so no human interaction is needed. How do you think image-tagging will evolve?
UE: I think we should look into making tagging easier. We are looking into connecting with databases so we can help for example fashion bloggers who are tagging certain items by proposing them “do you mean this item” in order to make the tagging process much easier. This is one way to make tagging easier. Image recognition is of course another thing that will certainly change how we search anything on the web.
For me automation will come in two ways, either by helping the human tagging or automate the tagging itself. But mobile + image recognition is very interesting, I think everyone is looking into that direction right now. How this image recognition connects with tagging is the way forward: tagging is a form of creating metadata for the image that then can help with the image recognition. When you tag, you specify a certain area in the image. We’re looking into that space of course.
aqnb: Which are the interesting metrics for ThingLink besides the number of viewed images? any success stories you can share?
UE: I think the numbers I’m most interested in here which our users get to follow on real time are the hover rates which is also a new term for digital marketing. We have an average hover rate of….
The majority of our users are bloggers, and several large European publishing houses are doing pilots with ThingLink at the moment. We’re learning a lot with them about how image-editing is changing in these publishing houses. Also the music industry has been a surprise for us, very enthusiastic… it’s quite understandable because people can consume music through images.
Let’s talk about the ecosystem & the future…
aqnb: You’ve just announced your “rich media tags”. Thinklink brings Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Spotify, Vimeo, Wikipedia, SoundCloud, Twitter, Etsy… into images. what other services can & will be added?
UE: You can insert any URL in an image. If it’s a url of any of these services we announced yesterday then it turns into a more interesting tag. In the coming months there will be more rich media tags and it will also be possible for 3rd parties to build rich media tags, anybody who would like to create these tags for themselves.
We will see a lot of new rich media tags in the coming months… we have some branded tags on the pipeline that we’ll publish later with our partners.
Basically how it goes… if tomorrow we think we should have a Foursquare tag it takes around 7 days to put it on the roadmap, make it, test it and publish it. We’re listening to our users on what should be next, we haven’t really decided of the next tags except for a couple.
We recently introduced TED talks … but it can be anything and in the coming months we’re going to focus on making it more accessible for other platforms to use ThingLink with our users.
aqnb: For when a mobile app?
UE: Well, ThingLink tags work on iPhone pretty well already, and other smartphones. It’s in our roadmap and we’ll focus on the mobile version… this summer probably.
aqnb: Will in-image tagging become a standard in the coming months-years?
UE: Yes. In the next couple of years…. it will feel so strange if there is no interactivity in an image, it’s like with hyperlinks really. I think it will become a standard.
aqnb: ..and what if a “Silicon giant” comes and knocks on your door… would you consider selling ThingLink?
UE: We’re interested in building one of the world’s best tagging services right now. We’re not interested in no-one knocking on other’s doors. The ones who are knocking on our door constantly are the people who bring tables & chars into our office because we’re recruiting more people.
aqnb: If in-image tagging is the hottest trend right now. What’s next?
UE: Mmmm. Mobile imaged based search. And also I think advertising will change tremendously.
aqnb: Thanks a lot Ulla!